Robbie Payne seemed to have a pretty simple summer homework assignment -- pick three books off a list of about 100 and do a report on each before the first day of seventh-grade classes this week at St. Peter/Paul Middle School in Easton, Md.
Well, he got a little distracted.
"One of these days," Payne said. "I wanted to start reading a bit, but I forgot."
Payne's excuse is a good one -- he and 11 other boys from the South Caroline Little League have spent the summer traversing the East Coast to win district, state and region championships and become the fifth team from Maryland to qualify for the Little League World Series.
Their success has practically relocated the town of Preston, Md., population 566, to this north-central Pennsylvania mecca of youth baseball. Many of the residents of Preston and neighboring Eastern Shore towns have made the five-hour drive here, with some making return trips between game days in order to get back to work.
After splitting two games over the weekend, South Caroline will play its third and final round robin game today at 3 p.m. against Richmond, Tex., which will be televised on ESPN. South Caroline needs to defeat Richmond, which is 2-0 in the tournament, to have a chance of advancing to the U.S. semifinals on Wednesday and Thursday. The top two teams from each of the four-team U.S. brackets qualify.
South Caroline's players have not been home since leaving for the Mid-Atlantic Regional tournament in Bristol, Conn., on Aug. 3. They say they miss sleeping in their own beds, eating mom's food, and having someone take care of the little things.
"We're doing things by ourselves," shortstop Chad Hicks said. "Like eat breakfast, take out the trash, pick up our clothes. I don't usually do that. The beds here are hard. In my bed [at home] I move around a lot. If I move around out here, I'll fall off . . .
"The morning after we got out here, I wanted to go home. But then I said, 'Let's just win the whole thing since we're out here.' "
No team from Maryland has advanced to the World Series championship game, let alone won the 57-year-old tournament. And that is part of the reason why the people of Preston are so hysterical for this team.
Red-clad, some with face and body paint and waving signs, South Caroline's fans took their first base line seats at Lamade Stadium two hours before the first pitch of the team's game against Redmond, Wash. on Sunday evening. They chanted, "Let's go Maryland," and cheered for each player from warmups until the final out of an 8-3 loss.
For sports fans in Preston, the closest major team is 80 miles away in Baltimore. So, for the first time in memory for the town's lifelong residents, they have a team they can brag about and call their own.
"It's a major topic, not only in our town, but in places like Salisbury, Cambridge, Ocean City, Easton," said Dale Harrison, the Little League coach of some of the fathers of players on this year's team who came to Williamsport to cheer. "When you have a close-knit, small town like ours, everybody pulls for you. . . . When they took the field the first time [in the World Series on Saturday] the crowd went crazy. There were tears everywhere."
Said 15-year-old Melanie Lee, who also made the trip to cheer the locals, "It's like a vacation to a new place, except all your friends are there with you."
Tom LaNeve, South Caroline's third base coach and father of first baseman Ben LaNeve, could not believe how the town was turned on its head when the Mid-Atlantic Regional championship game was televised live.
"People gathered around TV sets at dinner," LaNeve said. "They turned this into their Super Bowl."
It's a lot to ask an 11- or 12-year-old to play in a Super Bowl. More than 10,000 fans packed the stands for South Caroline's game against Redmond on Sunday night and ESPN cameras follow each player's every move on the field. By the time their game with Redmond ended, it was almost 10:30, well past their bedtimes.
The players live together in dorms here on the Little League complex, apart from their parents, whom they get to see for a couple hours each day.
"I miss my mom and dad, and I miss my dog," outfielder Nikolaus Nowottnick said. "But it's cool. I didn't know there would be that many people out here. I mean, people we don't know are coming out to watch us. It's different, but we're getting used to it."
Ben LaNeve and Brady Hare also are adjusting to the star treatment.
"We were told we'd be signing autographs," LaNeve said. "We thought it would be one or two. Now, it's like 10.
Hare added, shaking his head, "And we're going to sign more."
Moments of jaded stardom aside, the players do remember that Thursday is the first day of school for many of them at Colonel Richardson Middle School in Federalsburg. Principal Mike Iseman called the team last Friday to tell them he would excuse them if they have to miss the first two days of class this week.
But even though the players have not had time to do any schoolwork lately, it doesn't mean they haven't thought about it.
"If they have me do something like a summer diary," third baseman Ryan Hood said, "I know what I'm going to write about."